Sir Michael Jones is among those mourning the sudden loss of Dylan Mika, a man he describes as a little brother, unsung hero and inspirational leader throughout the New Zealand and Samoan rugby communities.

Mika died on Tuesday after a heart attack, aged 45.

From a rugby perspective he played seven tests for the All Blacks, featuring twice at the 1999 World Cup. He also played two tests for Samoa. But his many behind-the-scenes feats in post-rugby life left perhaps an even greater legacy with those who knew him best.

Jones first heard about Mika as the secondary school star of St Peter's College. In the Auckland team of 1993/94 Mika began turning heads, and he progressed to play alongside Jones in the great Blues teams of 1996-98, featuring at six, eight and lock.

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"He was always a quiet achiever. That was a hallmark of his rugby career and life in business and administration," Jones said.

"It's a wonderful story because he always had the challenge of living with diabetes from a very early age. We saw first-hand how he had to manage that and the way it could undermine his ability to train and perform at the highest level but it never stopped him excelling and reaching the very pinnacle."

Read more: Tributes flow for Dylan Mika

Given his health challenges, Jones always admired Mika's inner character and strength.

"Those kinds of rugby players are really special. There was something very unique about him.

"It's a bit like Jonah, no-one could understand how the kidney issue undermined his full potential and Dylan is a bit the same. I don't think we really saw his true potential. He was one of the most naturally gifted athletes I ever played with."

Competing with fellow Blues loose forwards Zinzan Brooke, Charles Riechelmann, Mark Carter, Andrew Blowers, Finau Maka and Jones restricted Mika's impact and longevity.

Off the field, though, he became hugely influential. From dipping into his own pocket to generously support the Samoan national team to serving as vice president of the New Zealand Barbarians club, Mika fast gained wide respect in rugby governance.

Sir Bryan Williams was one to offer glowing praise of his contributions yesterday.

Read more: Dylan Mika - another All Blacks big man gone too soon

Jones, seven years Mika's senior, was struck by his ability to lead. The pair shared visions of establishing an Auckland schools competition that would provide Pacific communities pathways to ensure they didn't fall through the cracks, while also passing on leadership and education skills to the next generation.

"It's so tragic that his potential and aspirations will never be fulfilled. We'll be lesser for it. He was a stakeholder that was moving into being a lot more influential in terms of where the game, not just in Auckland, but New Zealand could go.

"He was always under the radar – he didn't want any recognition. If he felt he needed to chip into his own resources to make something happen he would be the first guy to do that. He was very caring.

"He's like a little brother to me – wise and smart beyond his years. If he could dream it and it was worthy of pursuing, he would be the one to make it happen because he's that driven and capable."

In business Mika rose to general manger of a Samoan water company; held a senior management role at Glengarry Wines and later launched an agricultural tourism company with wife, Tracy. Their daughter Marley is three.

Jone said Mika, a Samoan chief and cousin of former Blues coach Pat Lam, pushed the cause of the Asia Pacific Dragons, a Pacific Island team which plays in Singapore, and recently brought Manu Samoa coaches to New Zealand to spend time with the Blues.

"His contribution was never-ending. Where he saw a need he would jump in, and he did everything with excellence."

In times of hardship, Mika was often the first to stand up. Instrumental in the organisation of Peter Fatialofa and Jonah Lomu's funerals, Jones says he had the heart to serve.

"He was the first guy to turn up and the last to leave when someone is in a time of need. It's something I always appreciated. He was an inspiration to us all in that regard. It's outstanding what he achieved in those 45 years."

As members of the rugby community gathered on Wednesday to farewell former Counties Manukau and Blues coach Mac McCallion, many paused to reflect over a troubling period that's claimed Lomu, Jerry Collins, Sione Lauaki, Norm Berryman and, now, Mika.

"He was so young. It's a stark reminder that we have to keep looking after ourselves so we can be around a lot longer for our families and be there for each other.

"It's been a tough two or three years. Other than the war I don't know if there's been a time when we've lost so many from our special club. It's tragic and a sobering thought."